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Congress And Government Agencies Move Toward Stopping Illegal Robocalls


Leader in Washington are stalled on many issues thanks to partisan divides. Well, both Congress and federal agencies are united in their loathing of illegal robocalls. They're trying to get the problem under control, but they're facing some resistance, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Sometimes they call in the middle of the night, sometimes during the day when you're at work, sometimes when you're in the middle of a news conference about a bill to block robocalls, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey was recently.


BOB MENENDEZ: All legislation requires phone companies to adopt the necessary technology to verify the legitimacy...



AUTOMATED VOICE: This is a friendly reminder your vehicle's factory warranty may have expired.

NAYLOR: A call-blocking company called YouMail estimates there were 4.9 billion robocalls placed in April alone, half of them scams. Many of them are spoofed - made to show up on caller ID - as coming from a local area maybe, even your own number. The telecommunications industry has been working on a way to stop those spoofed calls. Jim McEachern is the principal technologist with an industry group called the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions.

JIM MCEACHERN: The problem is that the caller ID isn't guaranteed, it can be spoofed. And what we're doing is really addressing that limitation.

NAYLOR: The technology still being developed is called STIR/SHAKEN - loosely referring to James Bond's martinis. It uses cryptology and would verify that the call you're receiving is, in fact, coming from the number it purports to be. McEachern says it wouldn't be fail-proof but should greatly reduce spoofed calls, similar to how a spam filter works on email.

MCEACHERN: Did they make spam go away? No. Did they get it under control? Yes. And I think that's exactly what we're looking at here is this is an important tool that will allow us to get it under control, make it manageable.

NAYLOR: The STIR/SHAKEN technology is being tested by some phone systems now. Meanwhile, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are poised to act on their own to block robocalls. The bill Menendez referred to earlier, called the TRACED Act, was approved 97-1. It requires providers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint to adopt technologies like STIR/SHAKEN to verify calls are legitimate while also increasing fines to up to $10,000 per illegal call.

The FCC, meanwhile, is scheduled to take up a plan to allow the service providers to block calls by default, removing any questions about the legality of call blocking. But some industry groups are trying to put the brakes on all of the action against robocalls. Marc Neeb is head of ACA International, which represents debt collectors. He says some automated phone calls are important to consumers and business.

MARK NEEB: Calls from physicians and dentists and, you know, all kinds of legitimate - mortgage companies, of course debt collectors - but calls that consumers not only need - even if they don't always want them, they need them.

NAYLOR: Neeb says if phone companies can automatically block these calls, consumers literally won't know what they're missing. And, he says, lawmakers and the FCC are casting too wide a net.

NEEB: There is a lot of distance between unwanted calls and illegal calls, and that's a very big concern of ours.

NAYLOR: Neeb's group has been lobbying the FCC to delay its rollout of the new regulations, now scheduled to be considered later this week. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.